Cell Phone Use While Walking Across Campus: An Observation and Survey

By Tessa Jones
Elon Journal of Undergraduate Research in Communications
2014, Vol. 5 No. 1 | pg. 1/2 |


Cell phone plays an essential role in communications throughout the world. The technological revolution that many Americans have experienced has drastically changed the way humans interact and communicate with one another. The author conducted field observations to examine Elon students’ behavior while walking around campus, along with an online survey. Findings suggest that students seem to be addicted to their cell phones, with 64 percent of students observed on campus interacting with their device one way or another. Nevertheless, a survey of students found that they believe that the need of selfgratification achieved through excessive cell phone use has negative psychological effects on them. Overall, this research would impart insight into the addictive world of technology, and the impacts cell phones have on students’ behavior.


In recent years, the use of cell phones has played a vital role in communication across the globe; citizens of the United States, like people in other countries, are consumed in the technological revolution. It is hard for members of Generation Y, who were born between the early 1980s and the early 2000s, to imagine a time when instant and constant communication was not a main focus for them socially. A generation ago, people left their homes without any form of electronic device; made plans in person; wrote personal, hand-written letters; and knocked on neighbors’ doors to see if they were home. These things, of course, still happen. But today “more than 90 percent of American adults have a cell phone of some kind, and for people under the age of 44, that number is closer to 97 percent.”1 For those with phones, particularly smart phones that allow individuals to instantly connect to anyone via the World Wide Web, personal, face-to-face connections seem to be disappearing at a rapid pace. In reaction, the McMillan family, of Ontario, Canada, conducted a social experiment where they “instituted a ban on all technology invented after 1986.”2

This year-long experiment was not designed to punish the children, but rather to show them a simpler way of life, before the world was instantly connected. Brean quotes McMillan, as saying, “The basis of the project is to feel what it was like when I was a kid before everything was connected,”3 The McMillan family is just one example of people who are trying to disconnect from the technology that they feel has become addictive.This research attempted to determine whether Generation Y’s seemingly constant connection via technology can be classified as an addiction. It tried to determine whether members of this generation are losing their ability to interact in personal, face-to-face contact with others without somehow returning to their “devices” in the midst of real-world interactions.

Over the past several decades, the number of cell phone subscriptions in the United States has grown significantly as people’s reliance on this technology has increased. There were 681,000 cellular telephone subscriptions in the United States in 19864 and 326.4 million in December 2012. As late as December 2002, there were no houses that relied solely on wireless devices, but in 2012, 35.8 percent of U.S. households were wireless only.5 Throughout this study, the author tried to address questions related to cell phone addiction and analyze its consequent psychological effects.

Literature Review

Before analyzing human interactions with cell phones, it is important to understand the definition of addiction and addictive characteristics. Alaghemandan explained that all entities capable of stimulating a person can be addictive. In his article, “Behavioral addiction versus substance addiction: Correspondence of psychiatric and psychological views," he found that “whenever a habit changes into an obligation, it can be considered as an addiction.”6 The Department of Internal Medicine conducted an experiment that evaluated how behavioral addiction correlated to substance addiction. According to their research, “Behavioral addiction such as internet addiction is similar to drug addiction except that in the former, the individual is not addicted to a substance but the behavior or the feeling brought about by the relevant action.”7

Mozes introduced the concept of materialism and the factors that contribute to society’s obsession without devices. In his article, “Can Excessive Cellphone Use Become an Addiction,” published by U.S. News & World Report, Mozes stated, “The way we treat and interact with our devices is often impulsive and uncontrollable. Roberts also explained that there are benefits to cell phones, but, “like anything, if we go overboard it can become a problem.”8 Roberts explained that numerous factors including materialism and impulsiveness play a role in turning cell phone use into an addiction. Roberts was quoted by Mozes as saying, “That’s particularly true when we use them excessively in public, . . . Because when we do so we’re signaling that we’ve got this shiny object, this status symbol, our iPhone or Android or Blackberry, and that we’ve got important people to talk to or text, who are may be even more important than the people right in front of us. And that we’re so important that we have to talk everywhere and all the time in front of others.”9

The article, “A Biblio Analysis of the Scientific Literature on Internet, Video Games, and Cell Phone Addiction,” published in the Journal of the Medical Library Association, concluded that the considerable amount of cell phone use in today’s global society isn’t as much an issue of addiction and dependence, but rather it is an issue of controlling impulses. The study stated, “One behavioral addiction that has received considerable media attention is the pathological use of certain information and communications technologies (ICT), such as the Internet, cell phones, and video games.”10 If humans learned to control their impulses related to cell phone use, they would be given the opportunity to interact and communicate with the present environment in which they are surrounded.

Morrill studied the changes in adolescent development since cell phones have become an integral aspect in American society. In the article, “Cell Phone Use and Psychological Development Among Emerging Adults,” Morrill explained the issues surrounding the ability for adolescents to solve problems, trust, and have positive self-affirmation due to cell phone use. Young adults feel a sense of entitlement and status with a cell phone. Morrill compared cell phones in today’s society to technology from older generations. Morrill added further explanation:

“Like the television in the 1950s and Internet in the 1990s, mobile telephony has emerged as one of the defining technologies of our time” (Campbell & Park, 2008, p. 371). Cell phones are having an impact on society in many ways including time use, privacy issues, and constant accessibility (Rainie & Keeter, 2006). In 1995, close to 34 million people in the United States had a cell phone; as of 2007, the number of subscribers was 255 million, or 84 percent of the U.S. population (Statistical Abstract of the United States Census Bureau, 2009).11 One of the biggest surprises surrounding the growth of technology is the worldwide acceptance and intense use of cell phones among youth (Ling, 2005). With cell phone ownership becoming so widespread, society is starting to see and question the impacts of cell phone use on adolescent development.12

Morill added that the younger population have become the primary users of cell phones in America, and “the value and meaning of a cell phone for an adolescent will most likely carry strong social implications within their peer group.”13 Morrill explains that “Measuring the constant connection and distraction; the amount of time spent in voice-to-voice communication and text messaging; as well as the length of cell phone ownership may identify the impacts on an adolescent’s psychosocial development during one of the most critical periods in their life. An individual’s identity development may influence how cell phones are used to explore, make commitments, and resolve crises during this turbulent stage in development.”14

Brian conducted an experiment with two teens who would go without phones for 48 hours. She published her research and findings in the article “Two Days with No Phone.” Prior to conducting the experiment, Brian asked the two teens about their phone habits and the amount of time they spend with their devices. She found that the two students woke up several times during the night to text. One student even slept with his phone beneath his pillow. “It’s common for teens’ sleep to be interrupted by texts. Sometimes teens even send texts filled with nonsense words when they don’t wake up all the way,”15 Brian claims that many teens have troubling problems when they try to go without cell phones or technology.

In Brian’s study, students had to give up their phones and electronic media for 24 hours. The results showed that, “One in five people experienced changes in their bodies or emotions that are signs of possible addiction.”16 Participants thought they heard their phone ring or vibrate, even when it wasn’t with them, they had strong cravings to reach for their phone to check missed messages or calls. Some people were fidgeting and unable to be still, in addition to feeling anxious, worried and lonely.

These feelings of stress and anxiety due to an absence of technology are new to teens across the globe. This addiction has altered the way humans personally interact with one another, and has created a distance in the ways in which we communicate. These devices have driven a wedge between intimate and direct conversation and communication. It is becoming an addiction that is impeding personal well-being, causing unnecessary anxieties and pressures. The research suggests that there needs to be a balance between time spent with these devices, and without them. Without a set balance, people will continue to become more obsessed and consumed by technology, and there is a concern that humans will lose all closeness and affection that can come from personalized conversations.

Based on the literature review, the following three research questions were asked in this study:

  1. Are college-age students addicted to their cell phones?
  2. What are obvious traits that show addiction to cell phones?
  3. What psychological effects do people feel when they are disconnected?


Field observations and a survey were conducted to gauge the level of engagement that Elon University students have towards their devices, and with each other in face-to-face situations.

For this study, the author tried to capture a sample that is an accurate representation of the individuals affected by cell phone addiction. A survey of Elon University students between the ages of 18 and 22 was conducted. There were 65 responses to survey questions that were designed to gauge cell phone habits, primary uses of cell phones, and feelings and emotions individuals possess without their cell phone. (For a full list of survey questions, see Appendix A.)

Based on the survey results, the researcher conducted field observations at four locations on campus. The observation locations were set at heavily populated student locations at times when more stu-dents would likely be present. The researcher recorded a number of interactions among the student popula-tion, including the number of students texting, talking on their phones, listening with ear buds, and the number of students who did not have contact with their devices. (Refer to Appendix B to see the full set up and design of the field observations.)


The 9-question survey generated 65 responses from students. The vast majority of students, 95.4 percent owned an iPhone, while only two students owned a Droid, and one claimed they didn’t own a smart phone.

When asked the primary usage of their cell phone, texting was mentioned by 83.1 percent of students as the most used feature, followed by calling by 10.8 percent, and Facebook, Twitter or Instagram by 1.5 percent each. More than half of the students surveyed said they believe they are addicted to instant and constant communication (56.9%). Students reported feeling disconnected (77.4%), naked (25.8%) and stressed (25.8%) when they didn’t carry their cell phones. The wide range of feelings is due to the fact that people don’t like being uniformed about things happening within the world around them. People want to be in touch and receive information within seconds. Almost all students (98.5%) believe that young adults look for self-gratification and acceptance from their peers though social media, which is constantly available though cell phones. An overwhelming majority (82.8%) agreed that there are negative psychological impacts on the self-esteem of young adults due to their addiction to technology.

Field observations were conducted to gauge Elon student’s interactions and behaviors with cell phones. More than 200 students were observed, and the results were somewhat surprising. The researcher found that 83 of the 191 students observed (43.5%) were either texting or holding their cell phone, while 68 students observed (35.6%) did not have their cell phone out at all. The other students were either talking on their cell phones (6.8%) or listening with ear buds (14.1%).

Based on the survey, it was possible to answer some of the original research questions raised. Regarding the question on what were obvious traits that show addiction to cell phones, young adults feel the constant need to check their cell phones for any form of contact from family, friends and work. Of the students surveyed, 44 percent agreed with the statement, “When I walk across campus, the majority of people are on their cell phones.” Although this is true based on the field observations, many may find it surprising that just over a third of the students observed did not have their cell phone visible.

In an effort to find what psychological effects people felt when they were disconnected, the survey asked students to identify feelings and emotions associated with the absence of their cell phone. One student reported in the survey that without a cell phone, the student had a "fear of missing out," commonly known as FOMO ("Fear of Missing Out"), in today's society. About 77 percent of students surveyed said they felt disconnected, while others said they felt free without their devices.

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